Brands boycotting Facebook, ACMA code of conduct highlight push to tackle harmful misinformation online

ACMA calls for comment on new code of practice tackling misinformation online; brands suchas Verizon, Ben & Jerrys join Facebook advertising boycott as calls for racially insensitive content online escalate

Harmful content, misinformation and fake news are firmly in the spotlight this week as protests escalate against the spread of racially insensitive content on social platforms and a new code of conduct for digital platforms enters circulation.

Today, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) called for comment on a new voluntary code of practice for digital platforms aimed at tackling misinformation and fake news online.

The local news comes as a growing list of global brands, including The North Face, Patagonia, Ben & Jerry’s and Verizon, pull Facebook advertising in response to the social media giant’s handling of hate speech and misinformation across its platforms.

Their actions follow the debut of the ‘Stop hate for profit’ campaign on 19 June, launched by an array of civil rights organisations and press urging brands to boycott social platforms for being complacent in sharing racially intolerant and abusive content.

That campaign comes off the back of a growing global discontent against racial prejudice centred around the #blacklivesmatter movement, which has escalated since the death of George Floyd in the US a month ago.

ACMA’s paper

ACMA’s new paper, Misinformation and news quality on digital platforms, features a proposed code development process and framework, objectives and outcomes aimed at better qualifying online news and information. Its release comes after ACMA was asked by the Federal Government to spearhead development of the code of practice as one of the many recommendations made from the 2019 Digital Platforms Inquiry.

That inquiry, overseen by the ACCC, recommended a mandatory code to address complaints about disinformation as well as an oversight role for a regulator to monitor issues of misinformation and the quality of news and information.

As stated in ACMA’s new paper, three key objectives are behind the proposed code: Reducing the impact of harmful misinformation; empowering people to better judge the quality of news online; and enhancing transparency and accountability of platforms’ practices.

ACMA noted the University of Canberra’s Digital News Report suggests 48 per cent of Australians rely on online news or social media as a primary information source. Yet nearly two-thirds of them are concerned about the authenticity and reliability of these sources.

“That should rightly be of immense concern,” said ACMA chair, Nerida O’Loughlin. “In developing this code, digital platforms will need to balance the need to limit the spread and impact of harmful material on the Internet while protecting Australians’ important rights to freedom of speech.

“Digital platforms should not be the arbiters of truth for online information. But they do have a responsibility to tackle misinformation disseminated on their platforms and to assist people to make sound decisions about the credibility of news and information.”

ACMA’s paper states it’s using the term ‘misinformation’ to describe all forms of potentially harmful, false, misleading or deceptive information which can have a harmful affect on users and the community. It’s also qualifying relevant sources as those of a public or semi-public nature, are shared or distributed via digital platforms, and have the potential to cause harm to an individual, social group or community.

Efforts to get a code established have ramped up in the face of Australia’s 2019-2020 bushfire disaster, as well as the global COVID-19 pandemic. Both presented “fertile” circumstances for false and malicious information to circulate online, the ACMA paper states.

O’Loughlin tipped her hat to efforts by digital platform providers to ensure information online during the COVID-19 pandemic has been as correct as possible and not harmful to health or property. The paper also identifies several steps taken by platforms in recent years, such as greater signalling of credible information, updating terms of service and guidelines, and increased detection of fake accounts, bots and trolls.

But for ACMA, it’s clear more can be done. “It’s now time for digital platforms to codify and commit to personal actions that are systematic, transparent, certain and accountable for their users in addressing such potentially harmful material,” O’Loughlin said.

ACMA said it planned to have an industry-wide code in place by December 2020. The association is due to report to Government in June 2021.

ACMA isn’t alone in these efforts. Non-profit digital industry association, DIGI, welcomed the paper and noted its own efforts to proactively establish such a code, working in partnership with the UTS Centre for Media Transition. For this work, it’s drawing on First Draft News, which set up an Australian bureau in 2019.

“Collaboration between digital platforms, governments, civil society, academics and the community is essential in the ongoing efforts to address the issue of disinformation,” DIGI managing director, Sunita Bose, said. “The code provides an opportunity to develop a common set of principles and commitments in relation to this work and to build on existing efforts.”  

Brands boycott Facebook over hate content online  

Local work to tackle the spread of harmful content and misinformation on digital platforms comes as increasing numbers of brands boycott Facebook’s social platforms in response to the company’s handling of hate speech online.  

It’s a situation again highlighting the power of digital and social platforms on information sharing of potentially harmful, culturally insensitive and inaccurate content.  

The brands are responding to the ‘Stop hate for profit’ campaign launched on 19 June by a group of civil rights groups and press including Colour of Change, NAACP, ADL, Sleeping Giants, Common Sense Media and Free Press. The campaign calls on advertisers to pause ad spending on Facebook and Instagram in July in protest against the way hateful content was spreading online.  

This campaign, in turn, comes off the back of the death of George Floyd in the US a month ago, and rising protests and movements globally against racially insensitive policies, practices and behaviour exhibited by corporates to digital platforms and government.  

Among the first global brands to join the Stop hate for profit campaign, was The North Face, which confirmed in a Tweet the decision to pause advertising in recognition of “the spread of misinformation” on social platforms. The list has continued to grow, with Ben & Jerrys, Patagonia and Verizon joining the boycott.  

In confirming its decision, a Verizon representative said the group is pausing advertising “until Facebook can create an acceptable solution that makes us comfortable”.  

This week, Ben & Jerry also paused all paid advertising on Facebook and Instagram in the US in support of the #StopHateForProfit campaign.

“Facebook, Inc. must take the clear and unequivocal actions to stop its platform from being used to spread and amplify racism and hate,” the company tweeted.

Likewise, REI also tweeted its decision to halt advertising in July. “For 82 years, we have put people over profits. We're pulling all Facebook/Instagram advertising for the month of July,” it stated.

Read more: Updated: Facebook, Instagram and Twitter block President Trump following Washington violence

Related: Industry assesses Allen's Lollies rebrand as racial sensitivity escalates

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